A.C.H.Smith. The Labyrinth. Chapter 13: Once Bitten

      The moment Sarah's foot landed on the bridge, the whole structure creaked and settled down a couple of inches. She jumped off again quickly.
      "Have no fear, sweet madam," Sir Didymus reassured her. "This bridge has stood a thousand years."
      Sarah looked warily at the bridge. "I just hope it stands another five minutes." She put her foot on it again and felt it sway beneath her. Gingerly, with a hand held out for Ludo to grab it if need be, she put her whole weight on the bridge. It settled again, with a noise like a very dry hinge. A couple of fragments fell off, with a puff of dust, and plopped into the bubbling bog.
      One hand on the rickety handrail, the other arm outstretched like a tightrope walker, Sarah advanced a step, then another. There were noises of squeaking and cracking at every movement she made. Behind her she heard a dull splash. A stone in the pier, loosened by her weight, had fallen. She felt the plank beneath her feet give another inch. The only thing that made her go on was the certainty that she had no alternative.
      Sir Didymus, in contrast, had no qualms. He was giving no more thought to the bridge, in fact. His brain was glowing with the prospect of, at last, submitting himself to the supreme test of the chivalric code - a quest. He had no idea what these people's purpose was, but it was clear that they must have one, from the sense of urgency that his trained eye had detected in the damsel. It was, moreover, a purpose of such high import that her courtiers were willing to engage in unarmed combat with a warrior such as himself in order to achieve it. His skin tingled and his eyes flashed as he turned to Ludo, and said, "Since thou art my brother, I will come with thee whate'er thy quest. Lead on!" With a little bow and a flourish of his hand, he invited Ludo to follow Sarah across the bridge.
      Ludo shook his head. "Ludo - wait!"
      And even as Ludo eyed the bridge suspiciously, another large chunk of masonry crumbled out of the pier and rolled into the bog. The bridge suddenly sagged and swayed. Sarah grabbed hold of the handrail with both hands. Other stones and loose cement were falling from the pier. In the middle of the shaking, sinking bridge, Sarah was stranded. She looked around in horror, saw that the whole thing was collapsing, and made a run for it to the other side.
      Too late. With a screeching, rending noise, the rotten timbers gave way beneath her. The vile muck bubbled over the edges of the planks in front of her. Sarah leaped for an overhanging branch of an ailing, leafless tree beside the bridge and managed to get both hands onto it. Swinging there, looking down at the crust of scum bubbling beneath her feet, and at the remains of the bridge floating on the bog, she moaned at the thought of being stained and stinking forever. With each swing she heard the branch tearing away from its trunk. "Help!" she cried pitifully. "Ludo! Hoggle! Sir Didymus! Help! Do something!"
      Sir Didymus was transfixed. His bridge had been erased from the landscape. It took him a little time to accustom himself to the new view, and a little more to accept that the role he had always played so devoutly had now been abolished. Then he remembered that he had just dedicated himself to these people's quest.
      "Fear not, fair maiden," he called out to Sarah. "I will rescue thee." He looked around giddily for the means. "Somehow," he called, encouragingly.
      Sarah, feet swinging, hearing the branch splitting, gurgled, "Help!"
      Sir Didymus held his staff out toward Sarah. It bridged about a thirtieth of the gap between them. "Here!" he shouted.
      Hoggle, on the far bank, just closed his eyes.
      Ludo sat back on his haunches, threw back his head, opened his huge mouth and howled ten times more loudly than he had when the goblins had been tormenting him.
      Sir Didymus gaped round at the amazing noise. "By the saints in their stockings!" he exclaimed. "Can I believe my ears?"
      Sarah felt the branch starting to lower her and screamed, but none of the others could hear her above Ludo's earth-shaking roar.
      Sir Didymus was shocked. "Sir Ludo, my brother!" he said reproachfully. "Art thou the manly knight I fought e'en now? Canst thou sit by and do no more than howl when yon damsel stands in need of our most gallant assistance?"
      "HOOOOOWWWWWLL!" Ludo continued.
      Sarah's feet were by now wriggling only inches above the khaki-colored slime. She bent her knees up to postpone the dreadful moment of contact, but she could feel that the branch was tearing its last fibers.
      From the far side of the bog, a rumbling noise could be heard, growing louder as it approached. A huge rock was rolling itself across the ground. Hoggle, hearing the noise behind him, had to jump out of the way. The boulder went past him, slipped itself gently into the bog, and came to rest, breaking the surface, immediately underneath Sarah's feet. As it arrived there, the branch cracked off the tree. Sarah landed on the dry rock, curled up and crumpled. She lay there sobbing with relief, but nearly asphyxiated by the stench a few inches from her nose.
      Ludo's howling had not been a cry of useless dismay. The stones of the earth had saved him not long since, when Sarah's aim at the tormenting goblins' helmets had proved so accurate. Now he was summoning them again.
      Sir Didymus was openmouthed. He kept turning his head, looking from the boulder to Ludo and back again, unable to decide which element of the miracle more deserved his attention, cause or effect, brother or rock.
      Ludo was not done. His head was still back, and he sustained his howling. This time he was answered by rocks dwelling beneath the mire. One by one they came to the surface, shedding the slime as though it were egg white. They stood themselves side by side, until they had created a perfectly flat causeway stretching from Sarah's rock to each side of the bog.
      Sarah stood up. She gazed at Ludo and shook her head in wonder. Then she smiled, gratefully blew him a kiss, and ran across the causeway to the far shore, where Hoggle held out his hand to help her onto the dry ground.
      "Oh!" Sir Didymus sighed in a low, respectful voice, and looked ardently at this most potent knight, the flower of chivalry, his brother. In almost a whisper, he asked, "Canst thou then summon up the very rocks, Sir Ludo?"
      "Rocks - friends." Ludo stood up, and charged joyfully across his causeway to rejoin Sarah.
      "Sir Ludo!" Sir Didymus called after him. "Wait for me." He did not want to lose this noble company. He looked around and barked out, "Ambrosius! My noble steed!"
      From behind a tree a woolly Old English sheepdog poked his nose warily out. When he saw that it was safe, he trotted obediently up to his master, panting in anticipation.
      Sarah, waiting on the far side of the bog, was incredulous when she saw Ambrosius. He was the identical twin of Merlin (who, she thought glumly, was probably still confined to the garage). "That's your steed?" she called to Sir Didymus.
      "Indeed it is," Sir Didymus called back, mounting up. "And no knight has one better - fleet and surefooted in battle, loyal and obedient in peaceful times, he is a flawless mount. Except when he sees a cat." He squeezed Ambrosius in the ribs with his heels. "Onward," he commanded.
      Ambrosius carried him at a trot over the causeway. There, Sir Didymus dismounted and led his steed, walking beside Sarah and Ludo. The valiant knight was agog to hear how perilous their quest was to be, but he contained his impatience like the perfect gentleman that he was.
      Sarah looked around for Hoggle. The dwarf was still hanging around the edge of the bog. Could he have gotten to like it there? "Come on, Hoggle," Sarah called.
      Hoggle was vacillating in hogglish dilemma. His hand was in the pouch that hung from his belt, fingering the peach. If he gave it to Sarah, he would be betraying his heart. If he did not give it to her, he would be dumped headfirst in the Bog of Stench.
      He brought the peach out and held it over the bog. He had not quite reached a decision yet, but he reckoned it would be wise to be prepared to act instantly once he had, with no time to change his mind. The peach might even slip accidentally from his fingers and relieve him of the responsibility of making the choice.
      He was still holding the peach over the fetid scum when he heard a voice in the air above his head. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," it said.
      Hoggle was so startled that he almost dropped the peach. But his fingers tightened around it. He closed his eyes in anguish. Jareth, wherever he was, was watching him. "Please," Hoggle whispered, "I can't give it to her."
      He felt his feet sliding toward the brink of the bog.
      "No!" Hoggle squealed. "No! All right!"
      He put the peach back in his pouch and walked miserably toward the others.
      Sir Didymus had been fretting at the delay. When he saw that Hoggle was following at last, he decided that the expedition needed brisker leadership. He was the one to do it, as long as they would tell him where they wanted him to lead them. He mounted Ambrosius again and headed into the forest, since it was obvious that they all had some unfathomable aversion to the bog. Ludo and Sarah followed him. Hoggle trailed some way behind.
      For a while, they went along in silence. Sir Didymus frowned and sucked his teeth, reflecting on the travails and perils through which he and Sir Ludo, his legendary brother, would be expected to lead the company. But withal, he thought, spurring on Ambrosius, thus is it and must always be in the knightly vocation. Be thou afraid or easily deterred, then let thee never bow thy knee to receive the sword of honor upon thy craven shoulder.
      Ludo, walking behind Sir Didymus, was thinking how good it was to breathe sweet air again, and how hungry he was.
      Sarah shared these thoughts, but mostly she was preoccupied with how Toby was faring, and with how much time might remain of the thirteen hours Jareth had given her.
      Hoggle was thinking of the choice he had not made, and of what, in consequence, he now had to do to Sarah. If she knew, he thought, she could scarcely blame me, could she? How would she like to be suspended headfirst in the Bog? No, it's all Jareth's fault. I'm just obeying an order that I can't refuse.
      Sarah realized that she had no idea where Sir Didymus was leading them. She asked him.
      "Withersoever thy quest demandeth," he answered. He had never felt so happy.
      "Do you know the way to the castle?"
      "To anysoever castle thou namest, fair and gentle damsel. The Castle of Perseverance? The Castle of Tintagel? The Castle -"
      "Jareth's castle."
      "Ah. In Goblin City." Sir Didymus nodded. He had been hoping for a quest that would take seven years to perform, but he did not show his disappointment. Perhaps this was a trial, and something more enduring would come of it. "Ambrosius knows these woods well," he said. "We shall reach the town well before day doth break tomorrow." He gave Ambrosius's reins a brisk shake and trotted purposefully ahead.
      Tomorrow, Sarah was thinking anxiously. Tomorrow will be to late to save Toby, assuming that the sun takes twenty-four hours, or maybe twenty-six, to cycle around here. She looked at the sky, through the forest branches, and saw that it was evening. Pink and amber ribbons of cloud were lit by the declining sun. "How many hours will that be?" she asked.
      Sir Didymus shrugged. "I know not hours, sweet maiden. A knight must perforce reckon his life by intervals of seven years."
      "Oh." Sarah looked at Ludo, but knew that he would know nothing about clocks.
      Ludo caught her glance. "Hungry," he said sadly.
      "We can't stop," Sarah told him, "but maybe there are some berries or something."
      She looked for Hoggle. Perhaps he might have some idea of the time.
      Hoggle saw her looking back for him, and waiting for him to catch up, and he knew that the time had come. He forced himself to alter his demeanor, switched on a glassy smile, drove his feet into a perky stride, and came swaggering up, good old Hoggle, trusty friend. "Missy," he said, beaming, and held out his hand.
      In it Sarah saw the most luscious peach, so rich and ripe and tantalizingly juicy that it appeared to be glowing. She realized that Ludo was not the only one who was hungry. Oh, kind Hoggle! He must have heard them talking about food.
      She held her hand out toward the peach. It looked so large and delicious that they could each have a mouthful of it. "Hoggle," she said gratefully, "you're a lifesaver."
      She wondered if she should politely offer the others first bite, but by now it was in her hand, and Hoggle was looking so pleased to have given it to her that she felt it was expected of her to take a bite. She raised it to her lips, then held it away again to look at it. The scent was beautiful.
      Hoggle, fists clenching, glanced up at Ludo and Sir Didymus and saw that they had not stopped, but were a distance away. That was something.
      Sarah looked at the peach almost with regret. It was a pity to spoil such a lovely thing. Although that was the point, wasn't it? A peach made itself lovely just so that someone would spoil it. But if that were the case, it was clever to be repulsive, and rattlesnakes might rule the earth one day. Was that what they had in mind?
      She bit into the peach.
      The sound of her biting made Hoggle tremble. He wanted to put his hands over his ears.
      Sarah's face was rapt. "This tastes... so strange." She looked at the peach, and found that her eyes would not focus on it. She began to sway. Feeling that she might be going to faint, she took a step toward Hoggle, for support. She stumbled. With one hand she wiped her brow while, with the other, she held the peach out at arm's length, trying to look at it properly. Then she understood. Slowly, she looked at Hoggle. He was a blurred, shimmering shape. "Hoggle," she said quietly. "What have you done?"
      In a strangled voice, Hoggle cried out, "Damn you, Jareth! And damn me, too!" Turning his face away from Sarah, he ran headlong into the forest.
      Now Sarah was tottering. She managed to stagger to a tree, and leaned against it. She had already forgotten Hoggle and Ludo and Sir Didymus and Toby, and where she was and why. All her thoughts were for Jareth, and her eyes were looking up at the sky.
      "Everything's dancing," she whispered.